MC Desrosiers—Candid Comments From an Inspiring EdTech Innovator

03 Sep 2014, Posted by Sarina Simon in Advice for Aspiring Producers, Distance Learning, Edtech, Expert Interviews, instructional design, kids' media
MC Desrosiers

MC Desrosiers

Meet Mary Catherine Desrosiers (who everyone knows asMC).   MC has had an amazing 23+ year career in children’s and educational technology. She has started up and managed all aspects of companies’ core capabilities and has years of experience building teams, processes, and controls to facilitate rapid growth. Having said all that, her true love is innovating with a purpose. That is–customer centered design, development, and delivery of products, technology and instructional services that yield proven results.

  • 1. You came to the Interactive industry with an MBA and started your career as a consultant at Booz Allen.  From there, you moved into product development.  How did that transition come about?  Was it by choice or somewhat accidental?

I have learned in life that everything happens for a reason and to always keep your eyes open for the signs that connect your life.  My transition to the interactive industry was both an accident and a choice.  I was working at Booz Allen with several Department Of Defense clients in the area of program management, specifically rolling out new technology and software. The ACCIDENT was, my brother was doing a loan for an individual working for Philips Media, who was looking for someone with program management background for a new interactive media platform. The CHOICE I made is I wanted to get out of government consulting and so I took a leap of faith that my government oriented program management skills would translate to the consumer market. They did and I never looked back!

  • 2. Since then, you have held important positions in product development, business development/strategy, and operations. What would you say are the chief virtues/drawback of each? Do you prefer one over the other?

In all the positions I have held, whether having fun designing a product or not so much fun running the P&L for an operation, you need a strategy, the right people and most importantly, the culture to succeed.  The key for me is focusing on making the organization and everyone I work with successful.  That requires a culture that nurtures creativity, communication and collaboration, which in turn enables change and rewards risk.  I prefer strategy and product design over business development operations, but they all are interrelated.  My sweet spot is building bridges by taking a vision and making it a come to life!

  • 3. You are currently in the Edtech sector, which is very hot.  What changes have you seen in Edtech in recent years?  Some people fear we are in an Edtech bubble and that we are going to see a lot of companies fail in the next few years.  What do you think?

Yes, the Edtech sector is indeed booming again with lots of startups which is very exciting. This time around it is different as technology and social media enable a low cost entry. The education market is in need of change and ripe for innovative products. That is great news, but to be successful you still need a product and/or service that meets a genuine need, is tied to a strong business model, has been tested, can scale and demonstrates outcomes. With the market changing and a startup organization evolving, succeeding is messy and requires the right people.  Many variables play in to how to succeed. It’s not all about whether it’s a great idea – so some will make it and some won’t. I do know, as in the past, that those that don’t succeed pave the way for others to pick up where they left off.  I experienced this when I was at Philips working on Compact Disc Interactive (CD-i). the first interactive product utilizing the TV as a platform. it didn’t make it, some say it was ahead of its time. Now that functionality and access to content is built into every TV and mobile devices we use daily.  I learned early that failure is a key component of succeeding – it’s all a question of perspective.

I encourage everyone to utilize your network and not only create a mentor relationship for yourself, but pay it forward by being a mentor to others!

  • 4.  What product or service have you seen lately that really excites you?

This is a tricky question, for me.  I see things every day that excite me from a new app on my phone to a startup entering the market.  Technology, specifically mobile, has been a catalyst for change allowing us to be engaged and learning continuously anytime, anywhere. What really excites me is not the technology, because I know it will change in 6 months.  The simplicity of life and innovation makes me smile and keep coming back – like a good golf shot does on the course.  I remember last year going to a school function with my daughter. We were right outside the school and my daughter was laser focused on her phone screen.  I asked her to stop texting, she paused and said she needed to finish checking on her makeup. Brilliant, she was using the reverse photo taking function as her own mirror. Of course I had to do it too!

  • 5. You have worked on some very innovative products in your career.  Can you talk about how they came about and some of the challenges attached to being an innovator? What are you most proud of in terms of career accomplishment?

One of my most memorable and rewarding accomplishments was in early 90s when I ran Studio Interactive, a multimedia studio, and started producing my own products.  Our team was a mixture of talented people and we were working on CDI, CD-ROM, prototypes of Video on Demand, interactive videos for the educational market and finally the Internet.  While we pushed the envelope in all these areas we also experimented with a variety of new concepts ultimately finding our success with an original series we created from a kid’s “how to” books that we called Cyber Craft hands-on-learning.  This series won over 13 awards in the industry and demonstrated a new approach to educational delivery with a CD-ROM series instructing student on electricity and digital electronics using 3D characters. These were educational games with a hands-on circuit board that was packaged with the CD-ROM built at home and used with the program.  This experience taught me the importance of creating a team that complemented each other with their talents and more importantly, a team focused on the end user experience.  It also became very apparent to me through trial and error of an innovation process, that understanding production and a commitment to quality and the use of best practices in instructional design/UI, made the difference in our product’s success.  Even with the success of the team and its products, the natural end to this group came with the fall out of the CD-ROM market.  Looking back this was a special time and very unique experience for our young team to be able to walk into a store and see a consumer products line that we created and was not only recognized by our peers, but more importantly valued by the consumer and their children.

  • 6. What is the most surprising result you experienced in your career?  For example is there a product that you thought was a sure winner that did not perform as well as you hoped?  What did you learn from this experience?

I have been fortunate throughout my career to work on cutting-edge technology and engaging media.  At multiple points I got a glimpse of the future. I worked on planetK12, a teacher community at the start of the internet, before anyone knew what a community was.  I developed a CD-ROM and website MetroNavigator that let you map directions from point A to point B before your cars and phones did it for you.  What I learned is that technology changes, but what doesn’t change is focusing on a user, asking the right questions to identify a problem or unmet need ,and creating innovative solutions.  Yes, it takes a lot of perseverance and hard work but, it’s so much fun too!

  • 7. What is the biggest risk you have taken in your career?  Did it pay off?  How and why or why not?   What are some of the things you’ve learned?

I spent 10 years at Philips/Origin Technology and took the biggest risk of my career when I left to go to a startup called K12.  I left to join a startup in early 2000 when the .com bubble was bursting.  It paid off big-time as I was one of the first executives, I stayed with K12, Inc. for 8 and half years having built its core products/services, technology systems, and taking it to a successful IPO and completing their first acquisition.  I am thrilled as I watch from a distance now as K12, Inc. continues to grow and serve students.

  • 8. We call this blog, Influences and Influencers, who are the people who have influenced you?  Have you ever had a mentor? Can you tell us about him or her?  Whose work or input has impacted you the most in your career and how?

I have been very fortunate to have mentors throughout my personal and professional life.  In my professional career as a woman it has been tough fitting into a male oriented business world.  My first mentor was right out of school at Booz Allen.  I started in the accounting department for a brief time prior to moving to the consulting group.  My first supervisor was a smart lady, business-like, fair and firm. During this time I remember being trained by an older and more senior colleague and being trained somewhat intentionally wrong.  My 3 month review was abysmal from my supervisor – I was devastated.  In my discussion with her, I discovered that I had been misguided, I remember her comments focused not on the situation or contributing factors, but on my need to own my results regardless the situation.  At that moment I could have walked away angry and untrusting, but instead I took the energy and turned it into an intense focus that has stayed with me my entire career.  Later in my career, as I moved up the corporate ladder. I looked for and created many long-term relationships.  All of my mentors had several things in common they are wickedly smart, action oriented and high integrity.  I would like to send a special thank you to several people who not only been colleagues, but mentors and good friends…Sarina Simon, Bror Saxberg, Fern Wools, and Susan Caulo.   I encourage everyone to utilize your network and not only create a mentor relationship for yourself, but pay it forward by being a mentor to others!

  • 9. What are you working on now?

I am currently working with Junior Achievement.  Junior Achievement is a 96 year old non-profit that prepares students for their future economic success by teaching entrepreneurship, career readiness and financial literacy.  The mission is more relevant today than ever.  I am an alumni of their flagship program, The JA Company Program that enables students to become entrepreneurs by creating their own products.  Truth be known, I took that after school program so many years ago to meet guys – I went to an all-girls school and the program was being run after school at an all boy school.  Fast forward many years and I am working on the digital transformation of this same program.  JA, like many organizations during this critical time in education, is making the move from print to digital.  I have interacted with lots of for-profits and non-profits who are making the shift. Some are successful, some are not, but I see in JA the entrepreneurial spirit they teach and know this organization is in the right place at the right time.

  • 10. If you could start all over again, what career would you pursue?

In thinking about my career path – every step lead to the next step and although I have zigged and zagged, my experience and accomplishments are almost all a combination of my love and skills in the areas of education, product design and business.  If I had to do it over again, I would want to listen to my gut and start with my love of teaching and design and then pursue business. I started on the business path when I was just coming out school because that was the only path I knew that would lead to a good paying job. In the end, I have been lucky and have successfully combined all my skills and focused on my love for design and learning…I look forward every day to what is next!

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  • Scott Marden

    MC – Loved this interview! The network which traces back to Philips Media is incredible because of the breadth and scope of the talented people who worked together during a true inflection point in content, creativity and emerging distribution platforms! It was all about the people.
    Sarina – please keep these interviews coming!

  • David Shives

    Great interview, great person… Thanks Sarina!